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Substitute student: a Texas teen sends a high-tech avatar to school in his place.

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Fifteen-year-old Lyndon Baty of Knox City, Texas, has amazing powers. He can be in two places at once. He can be joking around with friends in the hallways of Knox City High while sitting in his bedroom.

When he was younger, Lyndon couldn't attend school because he was born with a life-threatening disorder called polycystic kidney disease (see Devastating Disease, p. 16). But after having a kidney transplant in second grade, Lyndon was just like any other student: He went to class, made friends, and got involved with sports--until something went wrong. After Lyndon graduated from eighth grade, his immune system, which protects the body from foreign cells, tissues, and organisms, began to attack his transplanted kidney. To save the kidney, doctors prescribed treatments that suppressed Lyndon's immune system. The kidney was spared, but there was a downside: Lyndon's weakened immune system can't fight off invaders such as disease-causing microbes. Even the common cold could be deadly.

Suddenly, Lyndon couldn't attend school or hang out with friends because of the danger of catching a simple illness. "It was like, where are my friends?" he says. "Where's everybody that I know? And it was just my parents and brothers at home." Then the lonely teen found a way to go to school without leaving home: He sent a robot in his place.

HELP ROLLS IN

The robot rolled onto the scene during Lyndon's freshman year. Tim Root, inventor and chief technology officer of VGo Communications, didn't know about Lyndon's predicament when he engineered the VGo robot. Anyone with a computer and Internet access can operate one of the 1.2 meter (4 foot)-tall bots, complete with a camera and microphones, from a remote location (see How Lyndon's VGo Works, right). Root initially designed the VGo to enable engineers, health-care workers, and other employees working in remote locations to interact with individuals or teams while being able to travel anywhere within a building.

But soon it became clear that the VGo could change the lives of people outside the workplace. When a salesman called Lyndon's school district to see if they might have any use for a VGo, Lyndon spotted his chance. "I was ecstatic!" he says. "I told my parents, 'I want to do it, because I have absolutely nothing to lose right now.'"

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BACK TO SCHOOL

Last January, the VGo waited on its charging dock in the teacher's lounge at Knox City High. Lyndon logged in from his laptop at home, then used his mouse and directional keys to drive the robot. He was finally ready for his first day of high school. Or was he? "On my first day of school with the robot, I was nmning into lockers, water fountains, people, walls--everything in the school," he says.

Soon, however, Lyndon could maneuver like a pro. He rolls from class to class, joking with his friends through the microphones.

Using the scroll button, he can shift the VGo's camera up to see a teacher standing over him or down to look at the kid at the next desk. And others can see him on the VGo's video screen. "It really feels like I'm actually there!" he says.

The robot can't handle all of the classes offered at Knox City High. For instance, because it can't cook or sew, home ec was out. But Lyndon has found ways to troubleshoot other problems. If he needs to raise his hand, he flashes the VGo's lights. If he's feeling too sick to take notes, he clicks a button to take a snapshot of the whiteboard. One day he forgot about a schedule change, arrived late for math, and found the door shut. No one heard him calling, so he "knocked" by bumping the robot into the door. But the biggest challenge he has overcome is loneliness. Root says, "He is enabled to interact with other kids of his own age [as] sort of an avatar of himself."

To the other students, the VGo is just another kid. Lyndon says, "I guess it took a good week for them to really get used to it, but once they did get used to it, they just treat it like Lyndon instead of a robot." According to Root, that's the usual reaction--people start to think of the VGo as the person in a plastic suit. "When you're connected to a VGo, it becomes you," he says. "It's as if you've walked into the building."

DEVASTATING DISEASE

In the disorder known as polycystic kidney disease (PKD), fluid-filled sacs called cysts form in the kidneys. According to the PKD Foundation, these cysts can cause a fistsize kidney to swell to the size of a soccer ball. The kidneys can no longer filter blood, so the sufferer either needs ongoing dialysis to do the job or must undergo a kidney transplant. In the more common form of PKD, which afflicts mainly adults, symptoms sometimes take years to become noticeable. Lyndon has the rarer form, which strikes infants and children and quickly progresses to kidney failure. Eventually, he'll need another kidney transplant. Meanwhile, doctors monitor his immune system in the hopes that it will improve enough for him to be able to attend school in person.

HOW LYNDON'S VGo WORKS

The VGo gathers information using a camera lens and microphones. It relays images and sounds via the Internet to Lyndon's home computer. Lyndon remotely commands the VGo using his computer's mouse, arrow keys, and a handful of controls.

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Title Annotation:PHYSICS: TECHNOLOGY; Lyndon Baty
Author:Adams, Jacqueline
Publication:Science World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 5, 2011
Words:916
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